Protagonists and Antagonists

Hello, Write Owls! Welcome to Day 8 of Storytelling 101. Today we’re continuing our lessons on characters by discussing the two most important characters in your story: your protagonist and your antagonist.

The protagonist is the main character of the story. They are the character whose story you’re reading. We used Beauty and the Beast as an example last time, and Belle is your protagonist. Most Disney princess movies have the princess as the protagonist, Aladdin being the exception. You need to know your protagonist better than any other character in the book. You need your readers to be invested in the protagonist; otherwise, they won’t be invested in the story. I’m a weird exception. I almost never like a story’s protagonist. But you’re not writing for weirdos like me. You’re writing for the typical reader, and they want to care about your protagonist.

Give readers a reason to care about your protagonist. Give them an inspiring quality, and make sure they have an impact on the story (Maass). Readers like to see protagonists who are layered and have lots of personality, and they also want them to be flawed. No one likes a perfect protagonist. It’s unrealistic. One thing to avoid when writing protagonists is a female who is basically a man in a woman’s body, the Not Like Other Girls trope. Women can be strong and girly. It’s true not all women are girly, but make sure your female protagonist has some feminine traits (Napier).

The antagonist is the main person opposing the protagonist. Many times they are a villain, but you can have antagonists who aren’t evil. In Beauty and the Beast, the antagonist is Gaston; and he qualifies as a villain because he’s a terrible human being. An example of a story where the antagonist isn’t a villain is Pixar’s Toy Story. Some of you will want to call Sid the antagonist/villain, and that’s fine. I consider Woody the protagonist and Buzz Lightyear the antagonist. The majority of the conflict revolves around Buzz stealing Woody’s place as the favorite toy. Buzz isn’t a villain, but he’s still in opposition to Woody. Not all stories have antagonists. Sometimes Mother Nature takes on that role when natural disasters are the main conflict. Sometimes the conflict is entirely internal, and the character’s opponent is themselves.

Antagonists also need to be well developed. Knowing their motivations is a key component to making them more than a cardboard cutout of a villain. Antagonists, even villains, should have something motivating them other than evilness. Antagonists are complex human beings, too. In my opinion, the best antagonists are the ones who are sympathetic. Give them some redeeming qualities (Napier). Bonus points if readers want to support the protagonist and the antagonist. Remember, everyone is the hero of their own story. Keep that in mind, and you’re on your way to writing amazing antagonists.

Here are two final tips for antagonists. One, make sure they show up more than once or twice in the story. If the antagonist needs to be a surprise, give them henchmen to harass the protagonist over the course of the story. Your story will lack conflict and tension if the antagonist never shows up (Maass, Moreci). Two, show the villain being bad and scary. Readers won’t believe your antagonist is a threat if they’re told they are and never shown. Make sure you show your villain being evil (Moreci, Napier).

Those are the basics of protagonists and antagonists, the two most important characters in your story. If you have any questions about these topics, please leave them in the comments; and I’ll try to answer them either as a reply or in my Q&A on Saturday.

Discussion Questions:

Feel free to answer these in the comments if you want to chime in!

1) Who’s your favorite protagonist?

2) Who’s your favorite antagonist? Are they a villain? Are they sympathetic?

Works Cited

Maass, Donald. The Fire in Fiction. Writer’s Digest Books, 2009.

Moreci, Jenna. “How to Write Antagonists and Villains.” YouTube, uploaded by Writing with Jenna Moreci, 21 June 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDw_BBhG9DI&pbjreload=101

Napier, Merphy. “Dear Authors… Main Characters.” YouTube, uploaded by Merphy Napier, 11 February 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7XY_zccfQw

Napier, Merphy. “Dear Authors… Villains.” YouTube, uploaded by Merphy Napier, 4 February 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=noP8f0WvV4c

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